When was the last time you bought a physical video game? And no, we are not talking about expensive collector’s editions, but an actual day-one purchase on disc. Perhaps not very recently, but it is probably not your fault, the problem is with the perceived value of “standard” physical releases and their availability. With the recent announcement by Remedy that Alan Wake 2 will not be available on disc, but just digitally, it is a good opportunity to reflect on the digital versus physical discourse.
First, let’s look at Alan Wake. The game was originally delisted from storefronts in May 2017 because of a copyright license expiring. This meant that the only way to play the game, after that, would be to either own a physical copy or possess a DRM-free digital version (i.e from GOG). Sure, the game was relisted more than a year after, but this still should definitely raise a few red flags. We were lucky that the original Alan Wake was still made available on physical discs, but what if the same thing happens to its sequel, a game that is - for now - being only available on digital storefronts?
Remedy mentioned that a lack of a physical copy is a decision to “keep the price down”. Generally, gamers feel that games have increased in price over time and sure, that is definitely true of all goods, factoring in inflation. But, looking at games in 2013 that retailed for $59.99, if we calculate inflation, today they would be sold at around $76. Even in 2020, one title priced 70 dollars would, today, be sold at around 80. According to a GamesIndustry research, between 1977 and 2020 the average relative price of games declined by almost 2% every year. So, a digital-only release has not much to do with price, the issue is rather with the value of what gamers are buying with their hard-earned cash.
The 60 dollars that in 2013 would grant you, most times, a complete disc release, now - at best - give you access to what amounts to a glorified download code on a disc, with no manual or any extras. Even deciding to fork over your cash for a physical copy, you would rarely get an experience in instant access. Usually, one has to first go through an online activation and a hefty download, which could be either a necessary day-one patch or, many times, the actual full game. So, basically, you are paying full price for a game that is exactly the same as a digital copy, with just a tiny bit more plastic involved.
This whole discourse naturally ties in with the nature of games as a service, where consumers pay to buy a very vague “right of access”. Consequently, that right can be revoked at any time, for any reason, without so much as a warning. Looking at Terms of Service of the past, perhaps it never was any different, but at least the player had the last resort of making a personal backup copy. Now, even should you decide to make one, they would be basically useless.
As consumers, do we still expect to buy something that is going to last? We don’t buy smartphones that last forever (two years, if we’re lucky at that), even TVs, once supposed to be kept for decades, are probably going to get sold in 3-4 years tops. In a way, it feels like games have joined the fray. We buy a game on a platform, in the vague certainty that we are going to be buying it again, perhaps just a couple of years down the line. On one hand, this sounds like good news for preservation, but what happens to smaller indie titles that do not get republished or redistributed?
Even worse, some physical copies seem to have become an item reserved for a selected number of people. Specifically, those who are ready to fork over a hundred dollars (and more) for the privilege of having a selection of tat, together with their plastic case and thin 10-pages manual. It has stopped being an issue of resources, since the environmental impact of having to download, multiple times, a 30GB game is definitely on-par to printing the same game on a disc. The limited access not only devalues the meaning of a physical copy to an oversimplified “those who can afford it”, but takes the attention away from the preservation issue.
A possible solution could be, perhaps, going the way of the old Netflix-DVD model, when it was possible to order a bare-bones copy of a movie. Companies could offer physical discs, at an affordable cost. They have to consider that “physical” is not going away any time soon, a concept which the thriving vinyl audio market is reinforcing with each year. Also, there would be a need to inform each studio of the need for preservation, making plans to preserve beta versions, art and information well ahead, as a fundamental stage of the production phase.
If physical games have to continue existing, they should make sense for the buyer, so not be a simple code on a disc. In any case, there could be a number of different solutions that could potentially benefit both consumers, publishers and developers and also address problems of preservation. One thing is for sure, gatekeeping physical copies is not the way to go, even worse justifying a digital-only release with the factor of costs.
Remedy will hopefully make a physical version of Alan Wake 2 available, in the future, but the direction seems to be clear. If even AAA games are going the digital-only way, there is little hope that indies can do much better than that. If gamers want to get their hands on physical releases, they will have to wait or fork over a premium price to obtain one from the likes of Limited Run Games. And that’s is something that even poor Alan would likely lose some sleep over.